Updated: Jan 4, 2022
A Need For Community
Throughout their history, the LGBTQ community has been targeted and harassed solely for loving who they love, a normal occurrence and act for the straight community when they are out enjoying a night out on the town. This made going out in public, especially to party scenes such as clubs and bars, a difficult and ultimately threatening experience. Throughout the later 20th century, the LGBTQ community took things into their own hands and created their own nighttime scene including gay bars and ballroom.
What was gay club culture like?
Gay bars provided a safe space for LGBTQ community members to go without fear of being harassed for their identity, and it allowed them to meet other members of the community. However, gay bars were still not fully accepted into societal norms and were kept very small with bland front openings. They often were found in the poorer and underdeveloped parts of town hidden behind inconspicuous doors and tinted windows so outsiders were unaware of the scene inside. While hiding from society was a necessary survival skill, inside members would dance together all night long. Gay bars have also been the starting site of many historical LGBTQ tragedies including the Black Cat Tavern, Stone Wall, and Pulse Night Club, all of which sparked revolutions for the rights of the LGBTQ community.
Gay club culture originated in the early to mid-1900s but truly began to thrive and grow in the ’70s and ’80s. It was filled with vibrant music, unique dance moves, and extravagant style. There were no rules or norms, but rather the trend was to be your true and authentic self and to embrace differences and uniqueness. While the club culture of the ’70s and ’80s invited all members of the LGBTQ community, it particularly attracted and was run by the transgender community. Many popular terms such as “ballroom”, “vogue” and “disco” originated through this.
The Music of the Gay Club Scene
Music was a huge component of the club culture as DJs would showcase “unpopular” music at the time which often highlighted singers with LGBTQ and POC identities. As this music became more well known, it began making its way out of the club scene and infiltrating society. For example, the song YMCA, known by individuals from the city to the countryside, was initially written to attract gay audiences and captivate the club and bar scenes. However, over time the song became much more popular and started becoming mainstream, just like the disco ball which is seen as an iconic symbol of a party.
Ballroom thrived in the heart of New York beginning in the 1920s into the ’70s and ’80s. The ballroom scene mostly consists of drag queens who compete against each other in various categories. The ballroom scene allowed many people to openly express their gender identity and sexuality without judgment and many times attendees would be a part of a “house” which was their only true source of a family at the time and provided them guidance and mentorship through their younger years and introduction into the LGBTQ community.
Fun Fact: The popular and unique dance to “Vogue” by Madonna was inspired by and taken from the ballroom scene.
Want to learn more about the origin of the ballroom scene? Click here to read more about Willi Ninja, the Grandfather of Vogue.
Chiland, E. (2016, September 7). A look back at Hollywood’s underground gay club culture of the 1970s. Curbed LA; Curbed LA. https://la.curbed.com/2016/9/7/12827582/hollywood-gay-culture-disco-1970s-night-club-history
Garau, A. (2017, March 8). Disco History: How The New York Disco Scene Changed America. All That’s Interesting; All That’s Interesting. https://allthatsinteresting.com/disco-history
Lester Fabian Brathwaite. (2018, June 6). “Pose” on FX: New York City Ball Culture, “Paris Is Burning,” Vogue. Rolling Stone; Rolling Stone. https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/striking-a-pose-a-brief-history-of-ball-culture-629280/